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How Virtual Reality Can Transform Dementia Care

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Arfa Rehman | Co-founder & CEO | Virtue Health

26 Jul 2019 | 3 min read

Two years ago, a survey by the Alzheimer’s Society found that dementia has become the most feared disease in the UK, more than other any other long-term health condition. The rapidly growing aging population and the enormous costs of dementia care make it a disease that is also feared by public health systems and governments. There are currently 50 million people living with dementia worldwide. This number is expected to double in the next 10 years, and more than triple by 2050. Last year, the global cost of dementia reached a trillion US dollars. 

Dementia is an umbrella term encompassing a range of almost 200 conditions that affect the brain. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease, which causes 60-80% of dementia cases. Despite decades of research, the exact cause of dementia remains elusive, and so does the cure. While scientists continue to make advances in dementia research in hopes for a breakthrough, technological innovation has an enormous role to play in improving dementia care and helping patients, caregivers, and families to better manage the disease. 

Immersive technology has been revolutionising the field of healthcare for more than a decade, AIXR has previously covered the successful application of VR to treat the fear of heights, and the technology has particularly significant applications for dementia. VR is proving to be transformative for dementia care by helping manage psychological and behavioural symptoms of the disease. Despite common misperceptions about older adults’ receptiveness to VR, it is already being adopted at an encouraging rate by patients, healthcare providers, and researchers. 

Providing Relief from Dementia’s Symptoms 

Most of us associate dementia with memory loss. However, people living with the condition deal with much more than its cognitive effects. The psychological impact of dementia is enormous, and can take the form of anxiety, depression, agitation, and aggression. These symptoms negatively impact the wellbeing of people living with dementia, and make the condition challenging for caregivers. They also contribute to the over-prescription of medications that can pose serious risks for patients. 

Virtual Reality is playing an increasing role in helping people with dementia and their caregivers manage these symptoms. Given the effectiveness of VR in reducing anxiety and depression in patients with mental health conditions, the case for using VR to manage similar symptoms in dementia is obvious. Indeed, a recent research study by researchers at the University of Kent found that the use of calming VR environments amongst 8 dementia patients was effective in improving mood and wellbeing

In particular, VR can be a powerful tool for dementia care by allowing the digitisation of existing therapeutic approaches that are clinically proven to improve Behavioural and Psychological Symptoms of Dementia (BPSD). One such approach is Reminiscence Therapy, which is a behavioural intervention that helps overcome symptoms by triggering long-term memories in people with dementia. Evidence from clinical trials shows Reminiscence Therapy improves anxiety, agitation, and distress caused by the disease.  

At Virtue Health, we developed a Virtual Reminiscence Therapy platform by working closely with dementia experts, caregivers, and people living with dementia. Using VR to digitise Reminiscence Therapy, our platform virtually transports people with dementia to places of personal significance and memorable experiences to trigger memories. By using a combination of 360-degree filmed environments, Virtual Reality reminiscent scenarios, and Google Street View panoramas, the platform provides a versatile and immersive form Reminiscence Therapy. It also enables caregivers and family members to easily make tailored playlists and itineraries of immersive experiences. This allows for a more personalised experience for their patient or loved one. 

The platform was evaluated by NHS Walsall’s Clinical Commissioning Group in the first long-term pilot of its kind involving people with dementia in a range of care settings, including residential care facilities and community support groups. The intervention was found to improve dementia-related symptoms in a majority of pilot participants. 

It is still early days, but initial findings in this space show significant promise for immersive technology to be a gamechanger for how we care for people with dementia. Of course, a number of challenges need to be overcome before these applications are widespread.

Further research is needed to establish clinical evidence, and design challenges remain for making VR more accessible and usable by patients and clinicians. But current advances offer hope that VR can make cost-effective therapies and treatments available for millions of patients to help them cope with the challenges of living dementia. While scientists continue the quest of finding a cure, innovative uses of immersive technology can provide much-needed solutions to enhance the lives of patients and families.  

About the author:

Arfa Rehman is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Virtue Health, a digital health company for aging and longevity. Virtue develops digital therapeutics to treat long-term health conditions through innovative uses of technology, design, and data. Arfa co-founded Virtue as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. She has been recognised as one of the Top 10 Women in Tech by the Mayor of London and UK Business Angels Association.

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